Can it really be possible to feel reality this sensitively and live with this awareness? Wouldn’t such a life be too glaringly vivid and accompanied by extreme pain? By this, I am not referring to the tragedy of being caught up in war and experiencing its horrors, but the “intellectual” pain of having seen reality too clearly. As I reviewed Atul Dodiya’s solo exhibition Bombay: Labyrinth/Laboratory curated by Ranjit Hoskote at The Japan Foundation Asia Center in Tokyo, I had to ask myself this question.

Dodiya’s works incorporate diverse events that affect society: the well-known and the unknown. And scenery, objects, and daily life that appear typically Indian. This rich abundance of subject material is an element that distinguishes Dodiya’s work. Indeed one is struck by the sheer profusion of characters that make their appearance in his work. Besides Mahatma Gandhi, whom I immediately recognised, there were Dodiya’s father, Hindu gods and goddesses who were somewhat unfamiliar to Japanese viewers, and public figures in Indian society. One could detect a sense of admiration and irony towards famous European and American artists, who were the easiest to identify for someone involved in contemporary art. The works in this exhibition alone include references to Pablo Picasso, Joseph Beuys, Giorgio de Chirico, Anselm Kiefer, and Kasimir Malevich, as well as other artists. These references are executed in the identifiable style of each artist, and some paintings themselves are appropriations of well-known works, such as one that incorporates Joseph Beuys’ ‘coyote’.

The ‘coyote’ work by Beuys was a performance that he gave on his first visit to the United States, in which he entered a cage with the animal indigenous to the North American continent, and lived with it for one week. Hardly meant as an overture to the American people who have come to dominate the country, the performance reached out to the coyote, a symbol of indigenous cultures and peoples, and by living with the coyote, Beuys critiqued the history of colonialism on the continent and attempted communication with the dangerous animal through total non-resistance. While it is possible to see similarities with Gandhi’s philosophy of non-resistance, we also note the contrast between great activities such as Gandhi, who actually changed society, and Beuys who despite his advocacy of social sculpture, was unable to come out of the cage of contemporary art. Beuys and the other artists who appear in Dodiya’s work are no doubt figures who influenced him in the process of establishing his own art, and whom he came to respect and then critically overcome.

For the most part, Dodiya’s subjects are presented figuratively and the diversity of his figurative style is another distinctive element of his art. While there are works such as Letter from my Father, full of dignity and executed with the realistic touch, the majority of his recent works do not pursue realism, but instead daringly adopt the methods of billboard signs, illustrations found on nodescript posters, or pop art parody. When possessed of such versatile technique, an artist may be tempted to become immersed in its application, but Dodiya remains in command of his technique and without being controlled by it, he above all values the importance of his subject while maintaining an objective and critical distance towards technique.

The images that are layered are collage, the plenitude of colour, and the deliberate use of monochrome create a spatial complexity on the surface. This surface density suggests that the aim of Dodiya’s work does not lie in realism, but rather in deepening its interiority and capacity for thought. In the works executed on shutters, which have attracted considerable viewer attention, this creation of a layered depth in painting is concretely embodied in the use of materials. In B for Bapu (2001), Gandhi sips soup beyond the latticed shutter, but he appears to be trapped in a cage and if only the shutter could be rolled up, Gandhi would be free. In Mahalaxmi (2001), the goddess Laxmi is depicted on the shutter. Opening it one uncovers a painting based on a press photo of three women who hanged themselves. In Kalki (2001), where a stylised farmer holding a skull resembles the agrarian workers in Malevich’s early paintings, opening the shutter reveals the black silhouette of a man, an abstract painting by Malevich in the style of Suprematism, a ladder and a black factory.

These layered images and collaged subject matter create a multiplicity of meanings in Dodiya’s work and stimulate the capacity for complex reception in the viewer. At first glance, these paintings seem to have a schizophrenic post-modern style, but they are actually based on very different premises. They are not empty, superficial collages. This sort of tough content and critical spirit does not crystallise into work unless the artists is conscious of these issues on a personal level and approached them in relation to himself. The works do not depict a world seen by an idle spectator, but are the result of vision intuitively gained by someone who has lived in the circumstances. In them, we see an extremely serious observation of reality, together with love, criticism, and occasionally, anger.

In Dodiya’s work, several specific motifs such as historical and cultural references that are distinctively Indian, his own personal environment and background, and information, knowledge and history shared on a global scale are combined in one work and constructed as an aesthetic space in which these elements co-exist in an extremely delicate balance. The meanings and issues proposed by his work are simultaneously intelligible and unintelligible to us as Japanese. They elude us, but we can guess what they might be. We feel frustrated at not being able to pin them down and yet we are able to confirm a connection between ourselves and the work when we recognise something we know and understand. Here Dodiya is offering his own answer to the relationship between the global and the local, a burning topic in global discourse today. We see the significance of his time spent in the east and his study of its culture and history and his choice to live and continue making art in India. While the motifs in his work might be eclectic, his work forcefully convinces us it is not a mélange of styles, but most certainly a reflection of the reality itself in India, and thereby distinguishes itself from a vacuous eclectism that is simply a pastiche of fashion or style.

The relationship between the subject of art and the artist is always full of profound and serious issues for the truth of painting. However well the subject maybe rendered, unless we feel its necessity behind the work, the work will fail to be convincing. This sense of necessity on how the artist perceives reality, how close he or she can approach and understand it, and then how deeply the artist is involved with this reality. In this respect, the associations between Dodiya’s work and reality are always clear and earnest. They appear as various subjects that concern India, issues of art history, or personal themes, or when Dodiya paints on a shutter, as a practical solution found in the material. No longer a question of technique, this is a matter of how to live in relation to the world.

As we look at his work, we perceive a different a different point of view and a perspective from the outside that the people living a schizophrenic urban existence are apt to forget. We are then compelled to ask ourselves questions on the same issues that he raises. What happened to the distinctive charm that once set Tokyo apart and the downtown area where life had a local character? Where are the traditional Japanese gods now? In the process of modernisation and internationalism, the residents of sprawling metropolises with the dizzying round of events, crime, and extravagance have forgotten where they started and lost track of their destination.

The role of the curator is to find artists who have some talent and vision and to introduce them to the general audience. But the role does not end there. The curator is the organiser of the exhibition and what he creates is the context. It is the context which creates a sense of totality in the body of the works by an artist and tells us more about the meaning of each artwork. In a sense, the curator is the one who reads the art deeply and shows us the clear message of the artworks. From this point of view, Ranjit Hoskote has provided the most comprehensible and most deep understanding of Dodiya’s work for a Japanese audience. His explanation and interpretation in the catalogue not only elaborates each work of the exhibition, but also tells us what the role of Art is.

The purpose of art is not to depict the beautiful, but the truth. Even when Dodiya’s art overwhelms and entices us with the wide range of techniques and subjects at his command, an awareness of critical issues at hand lurks in the background. This is why Dodiya’s art has the power to transcend national boundaries to move and captivate people everywhere.

First published in Art India, Vol VI, Issue IV.

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